Saturday, 22 December 2012

Travelling in Australia, Part 2

Glimpses of Melbourne metropolitan area

Melbourne, often called the Garden City and "cultural capital of Australia", is the capital and most populous city in the state of Victoria, and the second most populous city in Australia. The Melbourne City Centre is the hub of the greater metropolitan area and the Census statistical division—of which "Melbourne" is the common name. As of June 2011, the greater geographical area had a population of 4.1 million.

The metropolis is located on the large natural bay known as Port Phillip, with the city centre positioned on the estuary of the Yarra River (at the northernmost point of the bay). The metropolitan area then extends south from the city centre, along the eastern and western shorelines of Port Phillip, and expands into the hinterland. The city centre is situated in the municipality known as the City of Melbourne. The metropolitan area consists of a further 30 municipalities.
Melbourne was founded in 1835 (47 years after the European settlement of Australia). It was named by Governor of New South Wales Sir Richard Bourke in 1837, in honour of the British Prime Minister of the day, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. Melbourne was officially declared a city by Queen Victoria in 1847. In 1851, it became the capital city of the newly created colony of Victoria. During the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s, it was transformed into one of the world's largest and wealthiest cities.

Melbourne was ranked as the world's most liveable city in ratings published by the Economist Group's Intelligence Unit in August 2011 and again in 2012. The metropolis is also home to the world's largest tram network. Melbourne Airport, the main passenger airport, is the second busiest in Australia and the Port of Melbourne is Australia's busiest seaport for containerized and general cargo.
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Melbourne has a moderate oceanic climate and is well known for its changeable weather conditions. This is mainly due to Melbourne's location situated on the boundary of the very hot inland areas and the cold southern ocean. This temperature differential is most pronounced in the spring and summer months and can cause very strong cold fronts to form. These cold fronts can be responsible for all sorts of severe weather from gales to severe thunderstorms and hail, large temperature drops, and heavy rain. During our stay we witnessed very heavy rain with thunder, cloudy and chilly mornings with temperatures ranging from 12˚C to 16˚C and then a sudden heat wave in the afternoon with 36˚C. One afternoon the prevailing temperature of 35˚C dropped to 20˚C in half an hour! We had never experienced anything like it before, but there again, we had never been to Melbourne before.

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Yarra River

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Driving in Melbourne can be challenging. Roads can be confusing, there are trams everywhere, and there is a rule about turning right from the left lane at major intersections in the downtown centre (which leaves the left-hand lane free for trams and through traffic). Here, you must wait for the lights to turn amber before turning. Also, you must always stop behind a tram if it stops, because passengers usually step directly into the road. Add to this the general lack of parking and you'll know why it's better to get on a tram instead. Melbourne has the oldest tram network in the world. Trams are an essential part of the city, and a major cultural icon. Several hundred trams run over 325km (202 miles) of track or so one our guidebooks told us.

A new automated ticketing system on all train, tram, and bus services has been introduced in the Metropolitan area public transport: a reusable smartcard called MYKI.  Here is the information you get online:
Interstate and overseas visitors can now purchase the myki Visitor Pack, for travel on Melbourne's train, tram and buses throughout their stay.
The myki Visitor Pack includes:
·        A myki smartcard pre-loaded with enough value for one day's Zone 1 travel
·         Instructions on how to use myki
·         An inner Melbourne tram map
·         A myki protective wallet designed by renowned cartoonist Mark Knight
·         Discounts at 15 attractions worth more than $130 in savings
The myki Visitor Pack is available for full fare, concession, child and senior visitors.
·         A full fare myki Visitor Pack costs $14.00 including $8.00 myki money
·         A concession, child or seniors myki Visitor Pack costs $7.00, including $4.00 myki money
The myki Visitor Pack is now available from the PTV Hub at Southern Cross Station (near entrance at Collins and Spencer streets), the Melbourne Visitor Centre at Federation Square and SkyBus terminals at Melbourne Airport and Southern Cross Station.

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Although MYKI was just what we needed, it proved very difficult to obtain. Since we had our rental car, we never bothered to find out where at the airport they would have sold the card. Thus when we actually found ourselves being in need of the card, we were nowhere near the places where we could have bought it. With the help of our hosts we managed to get to the centre and to the Melbourne Visitor Centre. Since our means of getting there were not totally legit, I will say no more. The curious thing was that you could not buy any tickets at the station where we boarded the train. If they were saving money by not employing staff to sell tickets, they could well have used one of the guys who kept showing people how to get their MYKI card touched on and off to do the job. Although I must say that they had done a good job of hiding the electronic card readers on the side of the exit gates, thy-high (thus the guys pointing the screen to people). Even the locals seemed to struggle to find the touch-off pad. When you entered, it was pretty obvious where to touch on because the pad was where one expected to find it, on top of the automatic gate box.

And the three Ts are: top up to put money on the card, touch on to have a valid ticket, touch off to pay the lowest fee.

The City Circle Tram is the best way to get around the centre of Melbourne — and it's free. The burgundy-and-cream trams travel a circular route between all the major central attractions, and past shopping malls and arcades. The trams run, in both directions, every 10 minutes. The trams run along all the major thoroughfares including Flinders and Spencer streets. Burgundy signs mark City Circle Tram stops. Normal trams stop at numbered green-and-gold tram-stop signs. The free tram has recorded announcements of the most important places and tourist attractions in the vicinity of the next stop. The problem is that with all the clattering and general noise around you they are reduced to practically incomprehensive mumble. If you want to know where you are, it is best to carry the route map with you – not that there is any danger of getting lost.

The centre of Melbourne has so much to offer sight wise. Since we chose to spend only ONE day in the CBD, we had to limit our visits to the places we most wanted to see. We decided to skip Royal Botanic Gardens because we wanted to see Australian flora and were taken for a personal guided tour by our hostess to Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, which is an absolute must for all garden enthusiasts and a feast for the eyes for anybody. For the same reason we gave Melbourne Zoo a miss and went to Healesville Sanctuary, which specializes in Australian animals, instead. More about both these places later.
Old Melbourne Gaol would have offered plenty to see and a special thrill in the form of a night tour by candlelight. This is the place where bushranger Ned Kelly was held a prisoner and where he eventually died.
Melbourne Aquarium offers a chance to see penguins being hand fed by the divers and an enormous walk-through tank with sharks and rays, among other things. But we were told that it more often than not has a very long queue to enter so we ticked it off too, since we had already  been to Minnesota Sealife Aquarium, which is the world´s largest aquarium with 10 000+ creatures.
We decided to see Melbourne Museum and it was worth the choice. It took us better part of the day but it was very interesting.

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The real thing: dissected from people who donated their bodies to medical education and research (on loan from The Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, The University of Melbourne)

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State Library of Victoria is a nice place with its exhibitions, bookshop, and café.

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Myer, Australian´s largest department store chain, has a store in Bourke Street. That was our next stop. Because it was November, their Christmas Windows had just been launched (9 November, 2012). Every year the new theme of the Christmas Windows remains a well-guarded secret while the artists, animators, and craftspeople are creating their magic for over six months to bring this Christmas tradition to Myer´s visitors. And attract people the windows did. There was a continuous line of people, old and young, but mainly parents with their children, waiting to view the windows up close. This year the theme was a tribute to a much-loved children´s book, Russell´s Christmas Magic.
Once we got past the queuing crowd we decided to have lunch at their café. The food was good, the service was swift, and the sparrows were ready to share your meal. Their presence is well explained by the fact that the café on the ground floor had partially open walls to the nearby street.
Prices in the store were sky-high but we managed to buy a little something for our kitchen at home.

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For every tennis enthusiast the place to visit is the Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park on Batman Avenue. Too bad we could not be in Melbourne in January, when the Australian Open is played. There are guided tours but we left it too late and missed them. But we will be watching the tournament in January. And we will definitely be back for some AO tennis!

St Kilda is the melting pot of arts and culture. From fish ´n` chips to fine dining, cafés, laid back sunsets on the boardwalk, to live music and community celebrations, and St Kilda Botanical Garden. And people jogging and even more people cycling. If you want to sit down and enjoy a great latte with a view, the pier café is just the place for you.

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Brighton beach, Bayside
This place puts you in a very good Aussie mood. People enjoying their Sunday afternoon out on the beach, even though the water was freezing, children and adults alike seemed to be loving it. A truly unique place.
The Brighton Bathing Box Association Inc. provides this information on its website:
For many years in the late nineteenth century, Brighton was Melbourne's favourite seaside destination. Brighton is located in the City of Bayside, which has 17 km of foreshore to Port Phillip Bay. Nestled on Dendy Street Beach, the Brighton bathing boxes are a popular Bayside icon and cultural asset.
Bathing boxes and boatsheds are intrinsic to Port Phillip Bay and Western Port. Much has been written about Victorian morality and its impact on how people went about bathing and enjoying the seashore. As a result of this morality bathing boxes had their origins not only in Australia but concurrently on the beaches of England, France and Italy. European bathing boxes exist to this day.
The 82 Brighton bathing boxes are unique because of their uniform scale and proportion, building materials, sentry order alignment and a Planning Scheme Heritage Overlay on a beach owned by Bayside City Council. As simple structures, all retain classic Victorian architectural features with timber framing, weatherboards and corrugated iron roofs. They remain as they did over one hundred years ago, as licensed bathing boxes. No service amenities such as electricity or water are connected.
Although approximately 1,860 bathing boxes, boatsheds and similar structures are located around Port Phillip Bay and Western Port, the Brighton bathing boxes are the only remaining structures of their kind close to the Melbourne central business district. As a functional remnant of a bygone era, they provide a cultural and historical resource that is constantly being photographed, painted or drawn.
Licensees choose to differentiate their bathing boxes with minor structural, artistic and colour variations. When viewed together they turn the beachscape into a collective work of art that can change by the hour according to season, light and colours.

If the thought of owning one of these bathing boxes crossed your mind, you might want to rethink it, unless, of course, you happen to be loaded. We were told that their prices are sky-high and that they are hard to come by but I wanted to find some evidence. Here it is. See below.

An article published in Sunday Herald Sun, May 29, 2011
THE auction of two Brighton bathing boxes is expected to raise $400,000.
Bayside council is building and selling two bathing boxes - numbers 58A and 58B - on Dendy St Beach.
The sale is part of a plan to build six new boxes, potentially netting the council about $1.2 million.
The first of the new boxes was auctioned in December and raised a record $215,000.
"What you are buying is an iconic space at the famous Dendy St Beach," Hodges Brighton director Sam Paynter said.
"It's an opportunity that doesn't come up very often."
The unpowered huts have soared in price over the past 10 years.
Locals were stunned when a box sold at auction for $46,000 in 1999.
Bayside council owns the land for each box and charges an annual fee of about $500.
The auction will be held on June 18.

Chadstone and Westfield were our designated places of shopping. Not that we actually bought anything much but it is nice to see what´s on offer. I especially like to see what the supermarkets stock and I also look to buy something special for the kitchen and bathroom. At least the selection of shops and stores made a nice change. There were very few shops that we had even heard of. We soon came to know what the most affordable places were, though. Big W and the Reject shop seemed to be where people did their Christmas shopping. We always look for new board games, too. This time we were not lucky. Also the shopping centres provide a good escape from the Melbourne 39 degree heat. For people like us who are used to the high prices of sushis, the sushi restaurants proved to be a paradise. Also the Chinese bakeries caught our eyes, or should I say mouths. One has to be careful with the parking though. The sings indicating the parking time are very inconspicuous, at least to a European eye.

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Williamstown was our last day target. Nice little town with some interesting shops. And the best ever park for dog walkers!

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Very dangerous :-)

There is so much to see and plenty to do in the Melbourne Metropolitan area that we feel that we hardly even scratched the surface.

This is my Christmas post and while I hope you enjoy reading it and sharing our experiences for a passing moment, I would also like to take this opportunity to wish each and every one a very Happy Christmas.

I hope to be able to post again in the first week of January of 2013, towards the end of the week. Watch this space!

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

About travelling to Australia, Part 1

Australia is the world's sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures - the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonefish - are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or let to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It's a tough place.

And it is old. For 60 million years, since the formation of the Great Dividing Range, Australia has been all but silent geologically, which has allowed it to preserve many of the oldest things ever found on earth - the most ancient rocks and fossils, the earliest animal tracks and riverbeds, the first faint signs of life itself. At some undetermined point in the great immensity of its past -perhaps 45,000 years ago, perhaps 60,000, but certainly before there were modern humans in the Americas or Europe - it was quietly invaded by a deeply inscrutable people, the Aborigines, who have no clearly evident racial or linguistic kinship to their neighbours in the region, and whose presence in Australia can be explained only by positing that they invented and mastered oceangoing craft at least 30,000 years in advance of anyone else in order to undertake an exodus, then forgot or abandoned nearly all that they had learned and scarcely ever bothered with the open sea again.

It is an accomplishment so singular and extraordinary, so uncomfortable with scrutiny, that most histories breeze over it in a paragraph or two, then move on to the second, more explicable invasion - the one that begins with the arrival of Captain James Cook and his doughty little ship HMS Endeavour in Botany Bay in 1770. Never mind that Captain Cook didn't discover Australia and that he wasn't even a captain at the time of his visit. For most people, including most Australians, this is where the story begins.

The world those first Englishmen found was famously inverted - its seasons back to front, its constellations upside down - and unlike anything any of them had seen before, even in the near latitudes of the Pacific. Its creatures seemed to have evolved as if they had misread the manual. The most characteristic of them didn't run or lope or canter, but bounced across the landscape, like dropped balls. The continent teemed with unlikely life. It contained a fish that could climb trees; a fox that flew (it was actually a very large bat); crustaceans so big that a grown man could climb inside their shells.

In short, there was no place in the world like it. There still isn't. Eighty per cent of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, exists nowhere else. More than this, it exists in an abundance that seems incompatible with the harshness of the environment. Australia is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents. (Only Antarctica is more hostile to life.) This is a place so inert that even the soil is, technically speaking, a fossil. And yet it teems with life in numbers uncounted. For insects alone, scientists haven't the faintest idea whether the total number of species is 100,000 or more than twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science. For spiders, the proportion rises to 80 per cent.

The above extract from
Bill Bryson, Down Under

And this is the country where we boldly went. We actually knew that people who had gone there had also come back, so we did not think it would be too bad. And it wasn't, it was great! It was amazingly great! It was marvellous! It was bloody marvellous!

The flight, we knew, would take us 22 hours plus all the waiting times. That is why we decided to fly business. A good decision it was, too. You can get two suitcases each making the grand total of your luggage 92 kg in addition to cabin luggage, of course. Between the two of us we did not come even close. Flying business is great. Everything is made real easy for you. No queuing. The only minor problem we had was where to find our designated lounge. At Changi in Singapore we found the Qantas business lounge only to be told that we should go to the Qantas first class and premium lounge. Ok, that makes sense! The lounges are great places where you can take a shower, if you so wish, or drink yourself senseless or stuff yourself with food, watch TV, read newspapers etc. Since we are very poor drinkers we decided to try all the vegetarian options they had on offer. Only the Finnair lounge in Helsinki wasn't very good for vegetarian options, but since we had to spend a long time there we noticed that it was getting better and dinner seemed to be OK.

The meal options in Singapore lounge were a bore. They seemed to have the same options all the time, at least they did when we went there going down and coming back. Their special feature was the fast cleaning after the clients. You could hardly put down a plate when it was taken away!

Another thing that got to us were the public announcements, which all began with "Hello everybody!" or rather "Hello evelybody!" After a while it began to sound really funny, like the computer in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy which always went "Hi there".

Our flight from Singapore to Melbourne was a Qantas flight. Airbus A380. Their flagship. They even had a customer service manager (!) on board. One of the reasons why boarding the plane was real slow was because he addressed every passenger by their name. My name was something that he greatly and timeconsumingly struggled with.

The plane was great. Not only did the seats recline to a completely flat position but in addition there was still room for people to walk from one aisle to another between the seats. The service was great but awfully slow. The champagne was great, if you like that sort of thing. Served in a champagne flute. The plates were real plates and the cutlery was not plastic. You had a real menu to choose from. Our meals were specials but they made no bones about changing them into whatever we wanted, which was great.

Most of the time they seemed to be serving us something or other. But when we got a break from eating, the selection of films, games etc was great. So we did not even take out our iPads. Of course, most of the time we found that the best way to pass the time was to go to sleep wearing the pyjamas that they were distributing for people to change into.
So after a good breakfast we were ready to take on Melbourne almost refreshed.

It took us ages to get through the passport control although we had our express lane card. There were heaps of (like Aussies seem to say) people, since our flight was a bit late and a flight from China had just got in before us. It was hot and the clothes we wore were completely unsuitable for queuing in that heat, but in the end we got through and were welcomed to Melbourne.

At the airport we had to find what they called the 1-minute pickup zone. It was easy since we had downloaded the Apple app of Tullamarine Airport. We phoned our car rental people to come and pick us up. We had rented a car at home just to make sure we got what we wanted. Rental cars are also cheaper online. We used, which had very good references and actually ended up calling them before completing the actual transaction of renting a car.

They are based in Slovenia and said that should we have any problems at any time with the rentals they would be online 24/7 to help us. The only snag was that we did not know what company would be responsible for the actual business. You could only see the name of the company, which was actually renting you the car, after you had paid for it. We decided to have a good and roomy car since we would be driving quite lot (i.e. over 2000 km) with our three large suitcases and two smaller bags. The car on special offer was a Mitsubishi Outlander, which turned out to be a good choice. When we knew the name of the company renting us the car, we noticed that it was not at the airport, but that they had a shuttle bus service to come and pick you up at the airport when you phoned them. We arrived very early on Saturday morning and so did a lot of other people. So it took them quite a while to come and get us. At the office the girl at the desk convinced us that the only sensible thing to do was to have an insurance, which would cover nearly everything.

Had we not chosen to get thus insured they would have made a reservation of 3000 Australians dollars on our credit card, which would have considerably limited the amount of money we would have been able to use while in Oz. Not that we expected to use that kind of money anyway, but we did not like the idea of them being in charge of our money and chose to pay $300 extra for the insurance. She also said that the Aussies were bad drivers and took unnecessary risks on the roads. This, we found out later, was not true at all.

So we finally got our car and thanked our lucky stars that we had gone for a roomy car.

We set the SatNav or the GPS, as it seemed to be called in Oz, to take us to our hosts in Melbourne. We got to the second set of traffic lights when the screen went totally black.
Nothing we could do would make any difference, it stayed black. Emerge plan B. iPhone Maps. Just as we had been reading how bad they are. But the app seemed to work and we just hoped that we would not find ourselves in Uluru or Sydney...  It wasn't great but we managed to avoid the toll road, which seemed like an awfully expensive $12-fee to pay to gain 5 minutes in time since on a Saturday morning the traffic wasn't very busy. We took the Western Ring Road and headed to St Kilda.

To be continued...